South Africa's Champions Trophy exit has caused them less grief than their 2015 World Cup semi-final defeat to New Zealand because, rather than dominate the pool stage, they stumbled through in the ongoing tournament. Faf du Plessis, South Africa's Test and T20 captain and the man involved in two run-outs in the must-win match against India on Sunday, admitted South Africa were below-par throughout their group games and could not realistically have expected to win the event.
"In 2015, I sat afterwards and I was extremely disappointed. It was the lowest point of my career because I felt that was our time to win a tournament. We played a good game of cricket that night. We were right in it until the end," du Plessis said on Sunday evening. "Today, I don't feel the same. I just feel extremely disappointed with the way we played. We didn't pitch up as a team."
Du Plessis does not think South Africa's collective disappearing act necessitates changes in personnel and expressed confidence in the squad that represented the country at this event. "These are the players. There's not anyone else in South Africa that's better than the guys right here," he said.
"It's so hard to put all this pressure on AB and almost blame him. I can certainly tell you he has led the team really well, he has done everything," du Plessis said. "The team let him down. I ran him out. There's nothing that he did wrong today. We were beaten, not even by a better team; we just played our worst game of cricket in a while. Every guy in his role in the team must take responsibility for not fulfilling his job today."
Unlike de Villiers, who said he had no answer for South Africa's lapses under pressure, du Plessis repeatedly pointed to a dereliction of duty - not just against India but in the tournament as a whole - as the reason for their failure this time.
"It's just the way we played in this tournament. I don't think it was just today. The game against Pakistan was a very inconsistent performance as well. [Against] Sri Lanka - one or two guys put their hands up but it wasn't a great game of cricket. All in all, it hasn't been a good tournament for us," du Plessis said.
"It's just personal performances. The answer lies in there. Every guy has got a job in this team and, generally, when we play well, guys do their jobs very well. If I use an example, [from] the top five in the last year and half, there have been a lot of hundreds. [In] this tournament there hasn't been. I am a No.3 batter, I need to score hundreds. Quinny [de Kock] is an opener, he gets hundreds for a living and all of us are to blame. AB had a quiet tournament but it's the same thing. All of us need to do our jobs and if we don't, we can't expect to win trophies. It's as simple as that. The answers lie in us not doing our jobs consistently."
Hashim Amla scored the only hundred in South Africa's campaign while du Plessis, de Kock and David Miller contributed a half-century each. Against Pakistan and India, the batsmen did not give their attack much to defend but Imran Tahir and Morne Morkel topped South Africa's wicket-charts with five scalps apiece. Still, South Africa's superstars barely shone. The No.1 ranked ODI batsman, de Villiers, scored just 20 runs in the tournament and the top-rated bowler, Kagiso Rabada, took only one wicket. There were dropped catches, misfields and a lethargy South African cricket is not known for, especially in light of their performances over the last few months.
In the lead-up to this tournament, South Africa had won three ODI series in succession, including five-nil triumphs over Australia and Sri Lanka and victory in a decider over New Zealand. They equalled their longest winning streak in that time. But, after that, they went on a break for the IPL, came back and lost to England and crashed out of the Champions Trophy. Though du Plessis did not want to use the time off as an excuse, he recognised that it changed the momentum.
"There was a big break in the last time we were together as a team but that's definitely not an excuse - you should just pick up from where you left. I thought before the tournament we were ready, but the matches in the last three games, [we] have been playing at five or six out of 10 and if you want to win a world trophy you can't be fighting at 50-60%," he said.
As a result, South Africa were undercooked and it cost them dearly. "We made a lot less mistakes during the season. In this competition we were rusty and cold and inconsistent and that's not the team that's been playing through the year," du Plessis said.